Coke Zero Sugar 400 Preview: Cut to the Chase

Coke Zero Sugar 400 Preview: Cut to the Chase

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We return to racing under the lights this week. The NASCAR Cup Series travels back to where the season started this weekend at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero Sugar 400. The second Daytona race of the season was historically held July 4th week every year. However, a few seasons ago NASCAR shook up the schedule and has moved this thrilling night race to the final race of NASCAR's regular season. This event will be the cut race to get into the playoffs, NASCAR's Chase for the Cup. The added urgency to improve one's playoff position or to make it into the field will ratchet the pressure up to 11 on a 10-scale this Saturday night. 

Unlike the Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series races under the lights for this dramatic and entertaining racing event. This will be the third superspeedway race of the 2023 season, so we should now begin to see some trends forming on these larger ovals. With the same aerodynamic package being used for the second time this season at Daytona, we hope to see some the same racing that made the Daytona 500 a competitive and exciting affair. If the drivers can duplicate the action we saw in April at Talladega, we should be in for a thrilling ride this Saturday night. The 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this season featured a whopping 57 lead changes among 21 different drivers for a very thrilling event. The Daytona 500 offered a comparable 52 lead

We return to racing under the lights this week. The NASCAR Cup Series travels back to where the season started this weekend at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero Sugar 400. The second Daytona race of the season was historically held July 4th week every year. However, a few seasons ago NASCAR shook up the schedule and has moved this thrilling night race to the final race of NASCAR's regular season. This event will be the cut race to get into the playoffs, NASCAR's Chase for the Cup. The added urgency to improve one's playoff position or to make it into the field will ratchet the pressure up to 11 on a 10-scale this Saturday night. 

Unlike the Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series races under the lights for this dramatic and entertaining racing event. This will be the third superspeedway race of the 2023 season, so we should now begin to see some trends forming on these larger ovals. With the same aerodynamic package being used for the second time this season at Daytona, we hope to see some the same racing that made the Daytona 500 a competitive and exciting affair. If the drivers can duplicate the action we saw in April at Talladega, we should be in for a thrilling ride this Saturday night. The 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this season featured a whopping 57 lead changes among 21 different drivers for a very thrilling event. The Daytona 500 offered a comparable 52 lead changes, which was the highest total for a Daytona race since 2011. We will see if more lead swaps will happen this weekend after two superspeedway races are in the bank with this car and rules package. The pack racing that superspeedways create translates to lots of lead changes and parity in these events. However, we also need to remember the 17 cars that DNF'd at Daytona in February is also a season high mark, and really illustrates the luck side of the equation in this style of racing too. So we have to be mindful of the multi-car crashes that the pack racing produces and the luck factor that is associated with this style of racing. We should be in for that same type of fireworks in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 this weekend. With this event at Daytona being held at night it always introduces a new dynamic to this high stakes racing. While there are many parallels we'll be able to draw from the Daytona 500, we fully expect the action in Saturday night's race to have its own unique characteristics.

Since this is the second race of the season at DIS, we can look back to February's Daytona 500 and even the race at Talladega this spring for some indications on which teams are running at top speed on the superspeedway ovals. This information will for the foundation of our picks for this week's race. We'll also pay close attention to the historical data at Daytona International Speedway. While average finish position is not always a good statistic to rely on at these huge tracks, the loop stats will illustrate the drivers that lead laps, make quality passes and dominate at Daytona on a regular basis. The data shown below covers the last 18 years or 37 races at Daytona International Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Austin Cindric10.5557113657694.4
Kyle Busch19.14,9471355144,23890.9
Denny Hamlin16.84,9861366543,79189.2
Joey Logano17.54,6101142463,19988.8
Ryan Blaney17.52,646391921,77184.0
Kevin Harvick17.94,4891362063,43182.2
Chase Elliott22.12,211681571,52479.6
Bubba Wallace13.01,47264281,00879.5
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.19.32,906971471,88379.5
Brad Keselowski23.13,878953392,73479.2
Martin Truex Jr.21.44,4841511443,32577.6
Christopher Bell22.3941326264277.4
Austin Dillon15.72,14881851,66277.1
Alex Bowman16.91,59349421,15376.4
William Byron26.31,125369481276.3
Ryan Preece21.955438547972.6
Erik Jones22.91,172616181871.7
Kyle Larson22.42,12167241,39271.4
Aric Almirola20.32,33982451,56871.1
Tyler Reddick24.1778291443870.5

JTG Daugherty Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won this year's Daytona 500 in a surprise upset. The victory made the veteran a first-time winner of the Great American Race but a two-time winner overall at Daytona. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet pulled off the major upset that February afternoon with his brilliant overtime restart and battles with Joey Logano and Kyle Larson coming to the checkered flag to collect the huge win. The mayhem and jockeying behind Stenhouse on the last lap of the Daytona 500 made for a perfect situation for him, and he wasted no time seizing that opportunity. When the series traveled to Talladega in late April it was a total free-for-all, but Ryan Blaney managed to lead the most laps with 47. Bubba Wallace would also lead 35 laps, but would crash out in overtime. It would be Kyle Busch walking away with that victory, thanks to some more last-lap heroics in the midst of mayhem. The theme so far in 2023 on superspeedway ovals has been brilliant moves, overtime finishes and last lap surprises by the eventual race winners.   

While he didn't win either race, Bubba Wallace will be looking to make his mark this Saturday night. The young 23XI Racing driver is still winless for the season and looking for that crucial victory to lock up a spot in the Chase for the Cup. Wallace was battling for the win in both overtime finishes at Daytona and Talladega, but he'd be the misfortunate victim in last-lap crashes while racing for the win. He led a combined 40 laps between both races and was a factor in both events, as well as a serious threat to win. Aside from Wallace, another winless driver looking to make headlines coming into Daytona is Brad Keselowski. He's safely in the Chase playoffs based on points, but would love nothing more than the scratch the win column for the first time since 2021. Keselowski is a seven-time winner between Daytona and Talladega and he led a 44 combined laps between those two events earlier this season. Will the owner/driver of the No. 6 Ford be able to step up his game at Daytona? Those among many other questions will be answered this Saturday night. We'll take a look at recent history, and the 2023 Daytona 500 and give you the drivers you need this weekend to win your fantasy racing league.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch – Busch has been typically a tough-luck driver in this form of racing but the last two seasons have seen this Richard Childress Racing star turn that bad luck around. He earned three Top-10 finishes in the four superspeedway events of last year in his farewell tour with Joe Gibbs Racing. Fast forward to this season and Busch is the winner of our last superspeedway event (Talladega) in the spring and he had an incredibly good shot to win in the season-opening Daytona 500 before he was taken out in the last lap melee that ended that race. Busch is a one-time Daytona winner, but that was a lot of years ago and he only cracks the Top-10 here at a 31-percent rate. Still, the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet will have a lot to say in the outcome of Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin has three Daytona 500 victories dating back to 2016 and he boasts a respectable 34-percent Top-10 rate at this high stakes track. With over 650-career laps led at the Florida speedway, he knows all too well what it takes to race up front here and win. Hamlin is also a two-time Talladega winner and cracks the Top 10 there at a strong 43-percent rate. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is locked into the Chase playoff field, but he'd like to end the regular season on a high note and set the tone for the upcoming Chase for the Cup playoffs. A win at Daytona would improve his playoff seeding and send a clear message to the field that Hamlin will be a force to contend with in the playoffs.        

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski is a one-time Daytona winner (2016) and has 339 laps led at the historic Florida oval. His luck finishing these races in Daytona has been the absolute worst the last few seasons, but his skill at this style of racing is undeniable. The driver of the No. 6 Ford is a six-time winner at the similar oval in Talladega and has led an amazing 315 laps at that superspeedway. The owner/driver has been on the uptrend this season and has shown incredible speed in his last two superspeedway efforts. Keselowski led 42 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 before being taken out in an overtime crash. He also led 2 laps in the spring Talladega race before finishing an impressive fifth-place in the GEICO 500.      

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse hadn't cracked the Top 10 once on superspeedway tracks in the last two seasons until his bolt-from-the-blue victory at Daytona earlier this season. The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran had good speed and led 10 laps in the Daytona 500, but the more important factor (luck) was on his side when the final crash of the night would promote him to the lead when the caution came out for the last time. The win made him a two-time Daytona victor and cemented his resume with the reputation of a superspeedway expert. Stenhouse is a one-time Talladega victory, so all three of his career Cup Series wins have come on superspeedway ovals. He may be a bit of a lottery ticket for the Coke Zero Sugar 400, but Stenhouse's homerun potential can't be ignored.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Ryan Blaney – Blaney won this event two years ago for his lone Daytona victory and he's a two-time winner at the big oval in Talladega. This season on the big tracks, he's led a combined 138 laps and cracked the Top 5 in both Talladega races as well as finishing eighth-place in the Daytona 500. The driver of the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford has three Top 10's in his last four Daytona starts and sports a career 44-percent Top-10 rate at the high stakes oval. Blaney has been a top performer the last few seasons in this style of racing and will be a motivated threat to challenge for the win in Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400.            

Joey Logano – Logano hasn't had much luck in the new stock car in this form of racing, but we can't overlook his past success in superspeedway racing. The Penske Racing star is a one-time Daytona winner and three-time Talladega winner. Logano has led 246 laps at Daytona with most of those coming since the 2019 season, so we're quite used to seeing the No. 22 Ford up front here. The veteran driver has been inconsistent this season, but Logano has performed well on his best tracks. Logano led 12 laps and finished runner-up in this season's Daytona 500. With the playoffs fast-approaching it would seem this driver and team are getting their act together in a big way. Logano's expertise in superspeedway racing in the recent past speaks for itself heading into this 400-mile battle.  

Chase Elliott – Elliott may have been foiled in his attempt to win at Watkins Glen this past Sunday, but rack him up for another run at the checkers this weekend at Daytona. The Hendrick Motorsports star is one victory away from qualifying for this season's playoffs. Elliott has never won at Daytona International Speedway but he's flirted closely with the honor in recent seasons. He was a back-to-back runner-up finisher here in 2020 and 2021 and Elliott has four Daytona Top 10's in his last six starts at the track going into Saturday night's action. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet is a two-time winner at the similar oval in Talladega and he cracks the Top 10 at that oval at a strong 47-percent rate. Elliott will be racing among the leaders in the closing laps at Daytona.

Christopher Bell – Bell has been a top performer in recent weeks and now rides a two-race Top-10 streak into this weekend's regular season finale at Daytona. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster turned in his career-best Daytona performance in February. He led 20 laps and finished an impressive third-place in the Daytona 500. Bell was also impressive in his other superspeedway outing at Talladega in the spring. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota qualified sixth on the starting grid and finished a strong eighth-place in the GEICO 500. Bell has not been a career-long performer at Daytona but he has been trending up on the big ovals this season.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Daytona & solid upside

Michael McDowell – The 2021 Daytona 500 winner is a sneaky fantasy racing play for the Coke Zero Sugar 400. McDowell owns two Top-10 finishes in his last five Daytona starts. With eight-career Top 10's at the historic Florida oval, the Front Row Motorsports veteran boasts a decent 33-percent Top-10 rate at Daytona. Given the high stakes nature of this racing, that rate is pretty good and across several different race teams. McDowell showed his potential at the end of last season when he earned a brilliant third-place finish at Talladega in the YellaWood 500. This driver and team bring tons of knowhow and homerun potential into Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400.     

Austin Cindric – The 2022 Daytona 500 winner also checks in on the sleepers list this week. Cindric led 21 laps and grabbed the victory in the Great American Race last season. It's one of two Top-5 finishes to go along with 34 laps led in his last three Daytona starts. In his last six superspeedway starts combined between Daytona and Talladega, the Penske Racing youngster has grabbed three Top-10 finishes (50-percent) and earned a very respectable 13.8 average finish across those starts. Cindric has run into trouble in his last two superspeedway starts, but we fully believe he's capable of the big rebound with high ceiling potential at Daytona this weekend.

Chris Buescher – The Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing veteran has been the standard of consistency on the superspeedway ovals. Buescher fetched a brilliant 32 laps led and fourth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. He then followed that performance with a strong third-place finish at Talladega in the spring. The driver of the No. 17 Ford Mustang has been locked-in on these big ovals. As to his career at Daytona, Buescher is a 40-percent Top-10 finisher at this high stakes track and that percentage has even been higher in his most recent visits. Three of his last seven Daytona starts have netted Top-10 finishes (43-percent).      

Erik Jones – Not much has gone right for the Legacy Motor Club No. 43 team this season, but the superspeedway ovals have been a highlight for sure. Jones has a good record even dating back to last season on these big tracks in the No. 43 Chevrolet. The veteran driver has four Top-10 finishes in his last seven superspeedway starts. Now most of that success has happened at Talladega, but Jones has had good speed at Daytona as well. The 76 laps led combined in those seven starts is also very noteworthy. In his last start on a big oval, Jones led 3 laps and finished sixth in the GEICO 500 at Talladega in April. The superspeedway skills and racing in the draft will be a great help to Jones this Saturday evening.

Ty Gibbs – Gibbs has heated up in recent weeks. In the last five races the young driver has collected a pair of Top-5 and five Top-15 finishes. Gibbs has moved from 19th to 16th-place in the driver point standings and is making an outside case for making the playoffs on points. The rookie driver should have a good opportunity to end the regular season on a good note at Daytona. Gibbs was Top-15 in the season-opening Daytona 500 and he showed improved superspeedway speed in his last start at Talladega. The driver of the No. 54 Toyota grabbed a third-place qualifying spot and led 4 laps at Talladega before a late-race, multi-car crash would take him out. Gibbs is riding a lot of momentum and potential into Daytona International Speedway.  

Bubba Wallace – Wallace owns an amazing three runner-up and four Top-5 finishes in his 12-career starts at Daytona International Speedway. He's always fared better at this oval than the similar oval in Talladega, despite having won at Talladega. Wallace's 13.0 average finish across those 12 starts and 28 laps led speak to his excellence in superspeedway racing. The 23XI Racing veteran has had some tough luck on the superspeedway tracks this season, but last time out Wallace was very strong. He led 35 laps in Talladega in April, but was rolled up in the major crash one lap before the checkered flag. Wallace has homerun potential in the Coke Zero 400 with his strong No. 23 Toyota.

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Kevin Harvick – Harvick is a two-time Daytona winner and a one-time Talladega winner and the veteran driver boasts some incredible counting statistics at both ovals. At Daytona alone, Harvick's 16 Top 10's amount to a respectable 36-percent Top-10 rate and his close to 300 laps led are a considerable amount. However, more recent visits to Daytona International Speedway haven't yielded the success that Harvick has enjoyed in the past. Only one of his last five Daytona starts have netted a Top-10 finish and two of those efforts ended prematurely in crashes and DNF's. Harvick hasn't led significant laps at Daytona since 2021, so the speed to compete with the leaders simply hasn't been present.  

Kyle Larson – The Hendrick Motorsports star has enjoyed success on many tracks, but superspeedway racing simply isn't his cup of tea. Larson's 18-career starts at Daytona have only netted five Top-10 finishes (28-percent) and his 22.4 average finish is more inflated than we'd like to see in a fantasy racing prospect. His nine DNF's at Daytona tell the tale and have led to that inflated average finish. In fact, the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has crashed out of his last four-straight Daytona starts. Despite starting on the front row of his last four Daytona starts, the finishes simply haven't materialized. Larson is too high risk of a pick for the Coke Zero Sugar 400.   

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has historically been a tough-luck finisher in these superspeedway events, and the 2023 season has illustrated this fact. Truex finished 15th-place in the season opening Daytona 500 and 27th-place later in the spring at Talladega. Despite leading some laps between the two events, finishing strong has always been the problem for the driver of the No. 19 Toyota. For his career, Truex is only a 17-percent Top-10 finisher at Daytona International Speedway and the 21.3 average finish is much higher than we like to see in a driver. Truex is simply too inconsistent of a performer in this style of racing to be a dependable fantasy racing play.  

Tyler Reddick – The young driver of the No. 45 Toyota has been an inconsistent performer on the big ovals this season. Reddick finished 39th-place after crashing out mid-way through the Daytona 500 and he was a subpar 16th-place at Talladega. Poor qualifying efforts and a lack of speed to get to the front led to those finishes. Reddick's two-career Top-10 finishes at Daytona vs. his five DNF's tell the story of his superspeedway experience. It has led to an inflated average finish of 24.0 for the young driver at Daytona International Speedway. He has similar stats at the Talladega oval with a 22.3 average finish and 29-percent Top-10 rate. Clearly, superspeedway racing is not Reddick's first love.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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